NFL Playoff Picture: Unsung Players Critical to Their Teams' Super Bowl Chances

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NFL Playoff Picture: Unsung Players Critical to Their Teams' Super Bowl Chances
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Throughout NFL playoff history, the phenomenon of "unsung heroism" has become almost as commonplace as the pregame coin toss.

The casual fan may not know the names Dexter Jackson or Larry Brown, but I guarantee fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys do. Both of those players were Super Bowl MVPs in the past two decades, heroes on those fateful Sundays, only to be buried in the depths of NFL history.

The same phenomenon applies just about every year during conference-championship weekend, when players step up with huge performances before eventually fading into the background.

Who are the most glaring examples of possible heroes remaining in this weekend's conference-championship contests?

Here's a look at a few unsung players who may hold the key to their teams' Super Bowl destinies. 

 

Corey Graham, CB, Baltimore Ravens

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

As we've seen throughout the regular season, just about any time Rob Gronkowski is out of the lineup, Wes Welker's role in the Patriots offense becomes exponentially more important. There isn't an overarching increase in his targets, but Welker's effectiveness becomes absolutely critical.

In the teams' first matchup, Welker had a bit of a field day—except when covered by Lardarius Webb. The Ravens star, who has been out since October with a knee injury, limited Welker to a meager three catches for 22 yards on four Tom Brady targets. 

However, Welker thrived against Baltimore when covered by defenders other than Webb.

He torched Cary Williams on a blown assignment down the field for 59 yards and did the same to Ray Lewis for 28. Those were Welker's two longest catches and represented 87 of his 142 yards on the day.

Tasked with playing the role of Webb in the Ravens secondary on Sunday will be Corey Graham. The former Chicago Bears special-teamer emerged down the stretch as Baltimore's top target, and the team's pass defense will likely sink or swim with his ability to cover Welker. 

Graham was the ultimate hit-or-miss target last week against the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning completed every pass thrown Graham's way last week—it just so happens that two of those throws landed in the Ravens corner's hands. On the non-interception plays, Manning hit his targets six times for 61 yards and two touchdowns.

The only player to get beat worse in coverage than Graham was Ray Lewis, against whom Manning completed all eight of his passes for 97 yards, per Pro Football Focus

Obviously, Graham cannot control the inefficiencies of his teammates.

But unless he can curtail his own struggles, Tom Brady and Welker may have a field day picking on him underneath. 

 

Michael Hoomanawanui, TE, New England Patriots

USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens aren't the only team in Sunday's matchup being given the unfortunate task of replacing a critical star. New England will once again have to make its Super Bowl run without Gronkowski, who reinjured his forearm in last week's victory over the Houston Texans and was placed on injured reserve. 

As luck would have it, the Patriots do have a well-documented and Pro Bowl-caliber tight end who can match Gronk's pass-catching ability. Aaron Hernandez may be a slight step below Gronkowski's best-tight-end-in-the-NFL skill level, but he caught two touchdowns and looked fantastic last week. 

Where Gronkowski's absence will ultimately create a problem is in the Patriots' hallowed two-tight-end sets. If New England continues with what we saw last week, Hoomanawanui will be Gronkowski's replacement in most of those formations.

In pass-blocking situations, Hoomanawnui should perform admirably. He's an absolute mauler and shouldn't have much of a problem protecting against Baltimore's edge-rushers with a full week to prepare.

One problem: He's a complete nonentity in the passing game. Shuffling in and out of the lineup both as a fullback and tight end, Hoomanawnui was targeted a whopping seven times all season and not at all on 51 offensive snaps against Houston. 

The Patriots could run a rotation with Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, but run the risk of telegraphing their plays in those situations.

In other words, it's time for Hoomanawanui to step up. 

 

Kroy Biermann, DE, Atlanta Falcons

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the NFC Championship Game, much has been made about the Falcons' ability to stop San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers signal-caller rushed for an NFL record 181 yards and two touchdowns last week, making the Green Bay Packers defense look foolish in one of the greatest individual performances in league history.

To say the key for the Falcons' winning is stopping Kaepernick is to tell someone the key to life is oxygen. We all get it, but it's Atlanta's task to figure out whether that's possible.

Throughout the buildup to Sunday's game, the largest overarching suggestion has been that Mike Smith use a spy against Kaepernick. For those unfamiliar, a spy is when a pass-rusher, almost always a defensive end in 4-3 sets, forgoes attacking the quarterback and instead plays contain right around the line of scrimmage. 

It's a strategy that's been around as long as the NFL has had quarterbacks who could run. And with John Abraham being Atlanta's only double-digit-sacks man this season, it's readily apparent that the spy duties will fall on Kroy Biermann.

He's seemed eager to take on the task all week long (via USA Today) and has done so multiple times during the regular season. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Biermann's spy tactics have made him look far more like a double agent than a James Bond in training. 

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton torched Atlanta for 202 yards on 18 carries in the teams' two meetings, including a 72-yard scamper on which Biermann got beat badly on a read-option.

What's more, the Falcons actually allowed the NFL's highest yards-per-carry average to opposing quarterbacks this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Biermann may think he's up to the task of stopping Kaepernick, but he'll have to undo a season's worth of questionable play to make that happen.

But as we've seen throughout the 2013 NFL playoffs, anything is possible.

 

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